Family man, adventurer, artist, advocate. Born on March 1, 1919, in Lipton, Sask.; died on April 9, 2015, in Toronto, of congestive heart failure, aged 96.
Irwin Kahan never said no to a new experience, whether it was bounding up to the stage of the Moulin Rouge in Paris when they asked for volunteers to dance, or joining a beginners' art class in his 50s. He told corny jokes, read palms and entertained others with stories, such as the time during the Second World War when he and an RCAF buddy painted the floor of a store room with red and yellow stripes, much to the dismay of their commanding officer.
Raised in a Jewish farming community in Saskatchewan, Irwin spent his early 20s as air and ground crew in Royal Canadian Air Force bases across Canada. After war's end, he went to university with the help of a veteran's allowance, first earning a degree in history from Carleton University in Ottawa, then a degree in social work from Montreal's McGill University in 1950.
His first job after graduating from McGill was in North Battleford, Sask., doing child welfare work for the provincial government. Three years later he and his wife, Fannie, and their young children moved to Regina, where he worked as a counsellor in Regina General Hospital's psychiatric clinic. Eventually, he became a member of psychiatrist and biochemist Abram Hoffer's team; they were researching a megavitamin therapy approach for schizophrenia and also conducted LSD experiments. Though he took the research seriously, Irwin long enjoyed regaling family and friends with stories about his (medically supervised) LSD "trips."
Irwin became a strong advocate for people with mental illness, first as executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (Saskatchewan division) and later, for two decades from 1968 on, as founding general director of the Canadian Schizophrenia Foundation. Fannie, a journalist, was also a passionate advocate, which made for intense conversations at the supper table about the short-sightedness of governments that refused to provide adequate resources for mental illness, or the perfidy of psychiatrists who refused to explore holistic approaches.
Irwin was devastated when Fannie died of breast cancer at 56, but eventually his natural joie de vivre returned. He travelled to exotic places such as Samarkand, in Uzbekistan, and less-exotic places such as Las Vegas; painted abstracts and landscapes; visited his children Barbara, Meldon and Sharon wherever we were, and delighted in his four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. After retiring in 1988, he moved first to Montreal and then Toronto, and took great satisfaction in his volunteer work, leading discussion groups with seniors on topics ranging from current events to personal issues.
His gentle, generous nature attracted animals and small children. He'd laugh uproariously as Meldon's little terrier, Mia, leaped on his lap and licked his face; his grandbabies gazed at him in fascination as he made funny faces. He rarely uttered a cross word, and almost always had a smile on his face.
His unrelentingly positive attitude sometimes puzzled us, but awed us as well. After the launch of his published memoir, Tending the Tree of Life, on the day after his 96th birthday, our exceedingly frail father announced, "Today was a joyful day." In the weeks preceding his death, when asked "How are you?" he always responded, with great conviction, "Good!"
When we were little, he sang Home on the Range to us. We imagine that he has now found that place where "seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day."
Barbara Kahan is Irwin's daughter.